Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

The Virtue of SelfishnessIn The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand wrote,

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is an automatic indicator of his body’s welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death—so the emotional mechanism of man’s consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering. Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him—lightning calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss.

But while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not. Since man has no automatic knowledge, he can have no automatic values; since he has no innate ideas, he can have no innate value judgments.

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” [“blank slate”] It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses.

But since the work of man’s mind is not automatic, his values, like all his premises, are the product either of his thinking or of his evasions: man chooses his values by a conscious process of thought—or accepts them by default, by subconscious associations, on faith, on someone’s authority, by some form of social osmosis or blind imitation. Emotions are produced by man’s premises, held consciously or subconsciously, explicitly or implicitly.

Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value. If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer. The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.

Here Miss Rand is referring to the specifically human form of emotion. But let’s start with the most basic form in which emotions manifest: in non-human animals.

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Objectivism vs. Intrinsicism vs. Subjectivism: A Short Summary

Objectivism-The Philosophy of Ayn RandAt root, subjectivism, intrinsicism and Objectivism are theories of the nature of concepts or “universals.” Here, I summarize them in regard to their view of the nature of truth and knowledge. Since truth is an attribute of statements composed of concepts, each school’s view of truth is a direct outgrowth of its view of concepts.

Subjectivism holds that truth, in effect, resides only in the mind. For a subjectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, based solely on one’s mental choices, subjective processing, or emotions. (Kant (by implication), Wittgenstein, James, Sartre, etc.) “Truth” amounts to whatever one believes, and there is no such thing as “knowledge” of reality; only some sort of “experience” inside one’s own mind.

Intrinsicism holds that truth resides disembodied out in the world. Typically, intrinsicists hold that all people have to do is somehow “open their hearts to God,” or “pay attention to their intuitions,” or “open their minds to the light of truth,” and the “external truth” will infallibly push its way in. If the truth is already “out there,” then there’s no reason to think that any special processing is required to reach it; one merely has to absorb it. (Plato, Aristotle (partially, in regard to essences), Apostle Paul, Augustine, etc.) For an intrinsicist, conceptual knowledge is whatever external truths one happens to have absorbed. A particular statement is “true” for everyone, whether they have any evidence or not. (And it’s an arbitrarily answerable question whether various people can be held responsible for not grasping all the “floating truth” out there.) (1)

Objectivism holds that truth and falsehood are aspects of conceptual knowledge. Truth (and perceptual knowledge) is a relationship between a consciousness and reality. Truth is reality, as conceptually processed by a consciousness. Truths do not exist disembodied in external reality. Only physical entities (and their aspects–including other consciousnesses) exist in external reality. I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning (by the method of logic.) For an Objectivist, a particular statement can be true for one person and false for another, only when there is a radical difference in the relevant perceptual evidence available to the two people. It does not depend on mental choices, subjective processing, emotions, or whims. (2) A statement can also be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another: People can have different levels of evidence that change how the statement ranks on their “epistemological determinacy” scale. (From arbitrary, to possibly true or false, to probably true or false, to certainly true or false.)

There is much more to be said about this topic, and I recommend Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, for more.


(1) To be clear, most modern, intellectual intrinsicists (and many such subjectivists) go to great pains to cloak their theory of knowledge in the appearance of reasoning from observation. They use the language of natural science and the formalism of deductive arguments. But this is all rationalization or inconsistency, because, for intrinsicists, the ultimate basis of “knowledge” is just to “feel the [allegedly external] truth.” For subjectivists, whatever their pretenses about subjectivism being necessitated by objective science, that self-contradiction wipes out objectivity on their part, and they thus imply that there’s no such thing as knowledge of reality. (What distinguishes knowledge of reality from fantasy is that knowledge is objective.)

(2) Some clarification on mental choices and truth: When I say that truth does not depend on mental choices, I am referring to what one might call “normative truth”: what the person ought to consider true. This depends solely on what parts of reality the person has observed, (i.e. what evidence he has.) What the person will actually claim as truth does depend on a mental choice: the choice to think about the evidence or not. This is why I say, “I can only reach a truth when I choose to conceptually process percepts by reasoning…” The normative truth is a potential I have, based on my current context of perceptual evidence. Reaching this truth is exercising the choice to fulfill (recognize) the normative truth.

Note also that the position of one’s body can be affected by prior mental choices. Only in this narrow sense can what one perceives–and thus one’s normative truth–be affected by mental choices. Once one has actually perceived something, mental choices are irrelevant to the normative truth.

[Substantial Edit: 2/28/15: My statement that, “For an Objectivist, a particular statement cannot be true for one person and false for another, (2) but it can be arbitrary for one person and either true or false for another,” in the fourth paragraph was altered to say that it is possible for something to be true for one person and false for another, based on evidence. I no longer agree with the old statement, and I don’t think Objectivism supports it. Footnote (2) was also altered to explain the current view.]


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A Refutation of the Argument from Design

God: The Immovable Mover

Some deep discussion of causality and metaphysics. My refutation of this “First Cause” argument for God appears in the comments under “Sword of Apollo.”

God: The Immovable Mover.

[Note: Jacob T. Brunton is philosophically sophisticated and usually argues civilly. These characteristics led me to give him the benefit of every doubt when it came to intellectual honesty. I am not one who is quick to judge such a person an incorrigible evader or intellectually dishonest, since I think that there are many deep, yet honest errors that smart people can make in thinking about philosophy. But through argument with Mr. Brunton on multiple occasions, I have been given the evidence to conclude, beyond any doubt, that he is not honest in his philosophical viewpoints; especially in his regard for the Bible.

My past discussions with Mr. Brunton can still be informative to others, and so I will leave them as they are. But he will no longer be allowed to comment on this blog, and I will make no further comments in direct response to him on any blog. —  6-27-2013]

A Refutation of the Argument from Design

The following is my short refutation of the Argument for God, from Design:

The Argument from Design purports to show that God exists by showing that only he could have designed the universe (or some part of the universe.) So, what does “design” mean? The relevant definition here would be: “conceived in a mind [God’s mind] and intentionally implemented in reality.” So the concept of “design” requires the existence of a mind (conceptual faculty) to conceive the idea for the object(s). Further, in order to do anything, the mind must have an intention or purpose. A “purpose” is a goal of a conceptual consciousness; the value for which it acts. Take careful note of the meanings of these concepts in reality and their relationships to each other; it is these concepts on which the Argument from Design rests.

The refutation of the Argument from Design is to observe what is actually required to infer design in an object and to show that this cannot be done with “God.” To infer design from an object: a) You must already know of some type of purposeful entity (based on other evidence) whose goals could potentially be served by the object. b1) Further, you must be able to observe some sort of purposeful function for the object as a whole (the object is a means to a goal beyond itself, whether practical or artistic.) OR: b2) You must be able to find evidence of a method of purposeful manufacture that is already known as such by other evidence. c) In order to observe that (b1) or (b2) is true, you must be able to contrast the purposeful nature of the construction of the object in question with something else that was not manufactured and has not been altered for a purpose.

The argument from design is capable of producing evidence of human-like aliens from observations of human-like alien artifacts, since human goals could potentially be fulfilled by such artifacts. But because of (a), the argument from design can’t apply to an immortal and radically different creature, whose alleged goals we cannot fathom. We have no basis for thinking that living beings have any purpose beyond themselves. They grow, metabolize, reproduce, and die in an endless cycle. The forms evolve over time, but to no clear goal beyond their own continuance and survival. Of what possible value could a succession of mortal humans be to an ultra-powerful, immortal, unchanging being? There’s no basis even for speculation, because there’s no basis even to consider it possible for an immortal, unchanging being to have values. (This supposition is arbitrary.)

The only known reference we have for purposes, and the relationship of designer to designed object, is humans and their creations. Indeed, the very concepts of “purpose”, “goal” and “value” only have meaning in reference to temporal, living entities that face an alternative between life and death. Goals and values are what living entities pursue in order to keep themselves alive, growing, flourishing, as opposed to deteriorating, suffering, dying. The concept of “purpose” is the same as “goal,” except that “purpose” involves the conceptual consciousness of a living being that is intent on the goal.

Thus, to say that an immortal and unchanging being has a “purpose” is literally meaningless; it defies the actual basis of the concept. Therefore a “design” by such an entity is meaningless and impossible to hypothesize.

In other words, whenever anyone talks about “God’s design” or “God’s purposes,” they are literally not making sense. The only way such phrases can be made comprehensible at all is by anthropomorphizing this alleged God into a mortal, very powerful human.

(For more on the nature of concepts and values, I refer the reader to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Exp. 2nd Ed. and The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, and to Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality by Tara Smith)


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